In an early scene in the The Martian, people on Earth realize that an astronaut, Mark Watney, left for dead on the surface of Mars, is still alive. With plaintive music—woodwinds, strings—straining in the background, leaders at NASA debate what to do with that information. How should they save him? Should they even try? As Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s director of Mars operations, points out: “He’s 50 million miles away from home, he thinks he’s totally alone, he thinks we gave up on him—I mean, what does that do to a man, psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?”
Cut to Mars, where at that moment Watney—fresh from a shower, with disco beats pulsing the air in his NASA-built habitat—is thinking that he is really, really sick of his soundtrack. “I’m definitely going to die up here if I have to listen to any more of this disco music,” Watney tells his video journal. “My God, Commander Lewis,” he complains to his ABBA-loving crewmate, “couldn’t you have packed anything from this century?”
The answer, sadly for him but delightfully for the rest of us, is no. The Martian’s music, for the most part, is not the stuff of traditional space opera, but something decidedly less epic. In the director Ridley Scott’s sonic vision—an element ported directly and cannily from the plot of the book that inspired the film—the soundtrack of Mars is, for the most part ... disco. So much disco. The worst, which is often also the best, of disco. It’s a running gag throughout the movie that Watney hates the songs (“Starman,” “Love Train,” “Turn the Beat Around,” and other four-on-the-floors) that were left behind on Melissa Lewis’s laptop. He plays them, though, because they are literally all he has to listen to save for his own voice and his own breathing. The songs are also, of course, acoustic connections to Earth. They help keep him sane. And they serve, in their way, as musical versions of the phrase that doubles as a verbal refrain in the film: “Fuck you, Mars.”
So, while The Martian is full of delightful little ironies, one of them is this: Some of the most regrettable entries in the canon of human culture—one of them being, in this case, ABBA’s “Waterloo”—end up helping to save a symbolic human as he battles for survival on the surface of a hostile planet.
The music also helps, in its way, to save the film whose beat it turns around. Just as the book version of The Martian is redeemed by Watney’s cheerful optimism and his charmingly sarcastic sense of humor (“Mark Watney, space pirate!” the bearded, stranded star-sailor takes to calling himself), the cinematic version is lightened considerably by its cheeky-cheesy soundtrack. The “I Will Survive” joke here pretty much writes itself. And, for the viewer, it’s hard to become too depressed by Watney’s situation—Mars’s particularly cruel interpretation of Murphy’s Law—when “Hot Stuff” is playing in the background.
Which is not to say that The Martian is solely soundtracked by Donna Summers. Scott’s film, in the grand tradition of the Epic Space Movie, does have an orchestral score—one that aims to evoke, The Martian’s composer, the Hans Zimmer protégé Harry Gregson Williams has said, Mars’s menace and hostility and loneliness. That score makes excellent use of tense strings and sharp winds to put its viewers in the mind, and body, of Mark Watney. (Take a particularly powerful moment when the stranded astronaut is performing surgery on himself: The music rises to a terse, sharp crescendo in accordance with his pain.)
Still, in this epic battle set in this vague future—Mark vs. Mars, man against the expanses of nature—the soundtrack belongs mostly to the pop music of the ‘70s and ’80s. And that in itself marks a notable change from the cliché of space-movie music, which pretty much dictates that cosmic scores will be ponderous and/or hopeful and/or haunting. That tradition was established long ago. There’s “The Planets,” Gustav Holst’s seven-movement orchestral suite inspired by, and named for, the (then) nine planets of the solar system. There’s the subgenre of New Age that has been dubbed space music—synthesized and psychonautic, meant to call to mind the sensation of floating, the feel of flying, the general sense of an end to endings. There’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its frenzied chorals and its iconic bummm … bummm … bummm … BUMBUM. In movies, in particular, from the climactic crescendos of 2001 to the avant-garde creepiness of Alien to the Sousa-inflected patriotism of The Right Stuff to the cathedralic organs of Interstellar, audiences have become accustomed to music that sears and soars and strains with a kind of sonic spirituality, evoking wondering humans and wandering stars.
No offense to the Hues Corporation, but “Rock the Boat”—“Rock the boat (don’t rock the boat, baby)! / Rock the boat (don’t tip the boat over)!”—is not, whatever else it may be, terribly epic. (Astronauts may technically be named for sailors, and space-faring vessels may technically be called “ships,” but beyond that, the maritime metaphor will not extend.) In using it, though—and, in general, in creating a soundtrack that might as well be nicknamed Now That’s What I Call Disco—The Martian is doing some boat-rocking of its own. It is effectively rejecting the traditions and clichés of the space movie. It is rejecting the standard, soaring spirituality of the typical space score in favor of something that is smaller and more human. It is trading Holst for Houston.
In that, The Martian calls to mind Guardians of the Galaxy, which owes a hefty portion of its considerable charm to its ’70s- and ’80s-era rock soundtrack (not to mention the sweet dance moves Chris Pratt showed off while listening to the songs in the movie). And Apollo 13, which blends popular rocks songs of the late ’60s and early ’70s with its orchestral music. It even calls to mind 2001—which, on its way to becoming the quintessential “space opera,” complemented its original score with strains of an older version of pop music: Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.”
These are cinematic production decisions that may also be telling of a new cultural attitude toward space travel in general—one that replaces a sense of wonder with a sense of whimsy. We’re now talking, in pragmatic terms, about colonizing Mars, about terraforming and space elevators and “space tourism.” Astronauts document their lives aboard the International Space Station on YouTube. William Shatner chats with them over Twitter. Space travel is becoming normalized. In the process, space itself ceases to symbolize the possible; now, increasingly, it represents the probable. The “other worlds” it contains are now simply, for better or for worse, part of our world.
In that sense, the music of The Martian becomes a metaphor not just for an exploratory approach to the cosmos—space, the final frontier and all that—but for a colonial one. “People of the world! Join hands! Join the love train—love train!” becomes not just an invitation, but a kind of political declaration. And “Rock the Boat” calls to mind not just lazy lyrics and some sweet syncopation, but also, in its way, the Niña and the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Straining on the surface of Mars, as a human surveys and sows and generally claims the land for himself, the song isn’t simply a desperate entertainment or an even more desperate grasp at sanity. It is also something bigger, and something smaller. It is the music of one planet—wonderful and terrible in equal measure—brought to the surface of another.